The LA Riots and the Politics of Autonomy - Robert Borg

Looting during LA riots

Robert Borg on the LA Riots, from London Notes #1, 1992.

Los Angeles. May 1992: $700 million of damage to property and businesses destroyed. 2,000 buildings under attack. A bill in excess of $12 million for police and fire fighters' overtime pay. 14,000 troops and national guard. 4,000 Marines. $780 million for insurance coverage. The main characteristic of the LA riots, as it was the case in the Watts riots in 1965, was proletarian shopping - direct appropriation of wealth in defiance of bourgeois law and police repression. This is only an impressionist picture of the politics of autonomy.

The recent wave of struggles in several American metropolises gives us the opportunity to think about "autonomy" and its meaning. Here a few "notes" on the subject.

First. The LA riots of 1992, as the Watts riots in 1965, as any example of mass as well as molecular (i.e. fare-dodging, squatting, etc.) forms of direct appropriation of wealth, constitute a rupture in the life-blood cycle of capital


Hundreds of people practising proletarian shopping and appropriating directly the means to satisfy their needs: from toilet paper to hi-fi sets. This represents a form of refusal of work, because it attacks directly the monopoly which capital holds over the means and which it uses in order to force us to work. In other words, proletarian shopping is the working class response to capital's enclosures, that is capital's confinement of our needs within the limits defined by capitalist work. In this sense, autonomy is autonomy of the working class with respect to capital.

Second. The outburst of class anger could not be preventively confined, subsumed, controlled by any organization. Church leaders attempted it, they failed. In this sense, autonomy has been expressed in relation to these organizations. The working class of the American metropolises has imposed its own programme on the street. In this sense, autonomy is autonomy of the working class with respect to the organizations which claim to represent it.

Third. The riots in LA and other American cities offer a clear example of development of patterns of grassroots self-organization. Capital circulation and capitalist coordination of work was replaced with circulation and coordination of struggles. The annoying and boring images of ulcerous yuppies walking around the streets of the Western metropolises with their portable phones talking about business and making capital circulate, was replaced by more carnivalesque and exciting scenes of youth coordinating operations on the battlefield. As one Guardian journalist reports:

"I watched children with mobile phones co-ordinate the movements of their gangs with the arrival of the police and fire trucks, warning looters when police were on their way."

Autonomy here is development of patterns of self-organization.

Fourth. The recent riots have shown once again the vulnerability of the capitalist social factory.

After the depressing 1980's in which capital was able to erect its monuments to the market, the fortresses of capitalist consumerism were finally stormed. The new shopping malls erected in recent years, as a symbol and expression of capital's power, have shown their strategic weakness. The architecture of the power of consumerism was turned upside down into an architecture of counter-power and re-appropriation. Again, Guardian:

"Strips of shops with giant parking lots in front, and the warehouses and fork lift trucks to the rear, proved so many honeypots to the looters, and too big for the overstretched police to control. At the vast FedCo store on La Cienaga, as the police fought their way through the traffic jam at the front, looting continued unrestrained from warehouses at the rear."

Autonomy in this sense is class rupture of the social factory and inversion of capital's instruments of power.

Fifth. The Watt riots in 1965 were confined in the ghetto. The main element of mobility was people's feet. Today, the rioters took the entire city and mobility was obtained through the car. Again, the gloomy picture of a capitalist city like Los Angeles with scarce public transport and jammed by millions of car trying to find their way to the parking places at work, was turned upside down by a different use of the car and a different meaning of mobility.

"Almost by definition, these shopping malls were outside the traditional ghetto areas. Magnet for the looters, and built close to the skein of freeways which thread the urban sprawls, they gave the riots an extraordinary mobility and geographical spread."

Autonomy in this sense is class inversion of capital's meaning of circulation and mobility as circulation of struggles.

Thus far the inversion, the anger, the rupture. The celebration of the LA riots is also the celebration of all this. But there is something missing, or at least a bit shadowed, in our representation of autonomy, something that the bourgeois press could only hint at. I am talking about the possibility and the extent to which a constitutive project of new social relations beyond those imposed by capitalism could spring out as a moment of these recent struggles. This depends mainly on two things. First, on the patterns and the forms of self-organization that have developed out of the riots. Unfortunately, at this time we know almost nothing about this. Second, on the degree in which these struggles circulate both in the USA and internationally. It is perhaps too early to evaluate this. We need I think to keep our eyes open, and be ready to grasp the political contents of this "movement from below", in terms of needs which have been put forward in the struggle and which can serve as common ground for the politicization of needs at the international level.